Category Archives: mental seeds

Pure Seeds – Q&A

So I received a nice email about my last post that included some questions. So I thought to answer them here, so that everyone can also read them. (Hopefully, perhaps, generating more discussion?)

1) When doing a good deed with an understanding of emptiness, you argue that there are two causal chains: first, the good deed itself, second, the recognition of emptiness while doing the deed. The first, you say, results in having a good experience in return. The second will result in “thinking about emptiness again.” However, Je Tsongkhapa says that all karmic deeds ripen as an experienced result and a tendency to repeat that action again. In this case, the good deed itself will ripen both as a good experience as well as the tendency to do the good deed again. If so, in what way is emptiness necessary in creating the upward spiral? You might say that doing the deed with an understanding of emptiness creates a more powerful karmic seed causing the deed to ripen sooner, making an upward spiral more possible, but this seems like a slightly different point than you’re making.

Je Tsongkapa, if you don’t know, is the founder of the Gelukpa order of Tibetan Buddhism. So what he says is a big deal. But in fact Je Tsongkapa is getting this from the Buddha; the text we usually refer to for this kind of information is called the Abhidharma Kosha (Treasure House of Higher Knowledge), which is a compilation of knowledge taught by the Buddha and compiled by Master Vasubhandu.

Master Vasubhandu writes in his book that there can be four results from any given mental seed you plant: a similar result, a habit, the environmental result, and the projecting result. For example, if I give away some money then I will receive some money in the future (similar result), I will give money away again (the habit result), I will see other people giving money away (the environmental result), and in the future I will see something big happen (the projecting result). So here we’re talking about the habit result: if you do something once, you plant a seed to do it again.

So this is a good question, but not the same as what I was talking about. The thing to get clear on, as is so often the case understanding seeds, is the time gap. There is no necessary relationship between the amount of time it takes each of these four results to come back. In fact, these four results, if they occur, must almost necessarily not occur at the same time, because the projecting result must come later.

Let’s discuss an example. Let’s say I want to pay off my student loans. So I write a check for my student loan payment. What seeds have I planted? I gave something away, so something will come back to me (money, probably). And I created a habit to pay my student loan bill. Where will this get me?

By itself, possibly not very far. I had a friend who borrowed $60k to go to school (this is back in the mid-’90s). I was complaining about my student loan debt ($23k) and how hard it was for me to make payments at that time. (This was just out of school, I was making $26k a year). He had a job similar to mine, at a similar income level, and told me that his payments weren’t even keeping up with the interest–he was making monthly loan payments and his principal was increasing.

So how would planting good seeds get him out of this? By itself, it might not. He gave money away, but it’s not enough. And he has the habit to give, but this won’t fix his problem, if his principal is increasing with each payment he makes.

But what if every time he gave away money he thought about the emptiness of what he was doing? It’s true that by improving his motivation (step #2 of the four steps) he will plant a more powerful seed that will come back stronger and faster. But what I was arguing was that when he gets the similar result (money coming back), because he thought about emptiness, he will replant the seed that produced that result as well.

So maybe the easiest way to understand what I was describing is that not only will the resultant habit potentially be starting an upward spiral, but, by thinking about emptiness, then the similar result will be as well.

Pure Seeds

During a coaching call yesterday I was discussing the different kinds of mental seeds. There are two lists of three: good, bad, and neutral or good, bad, and pure. We’re more interested in the second list.

What is a pure seed? Perhaps the earliest way to understand is to look at the rest of the list first. What is a bad seed? Any seed planted by harming others must only bring pain back to us. It can take time, but this is the only logical possibility. Conversely, any seed of helping others must bring us a pleasant result (or else things are random).

That said, what is the only good thing about a bad seed? Once they ripen, just like a physical seed, they’re gone. When a flower seed ripens into the flower, the seed is destroyed. So unless you do something to replant the seed (like get angry again), once you’ve experienced the negative result of a seed you don’t have to worry about it giving you a result again.

Conversely, what’s wrong with a good seed? Of course, it produces a good result. But then what happens?

The same thing. Is it better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all? Would you like to be rich and lose everything? The problem with a good seed is that they wear out the same as bad seeds, potentially leaving you worse off than before.

So what’s the solution? What if there was a good seed that didn’t wear out? What would that look like?

In Tibetan Buddhism they say that for a bird to fly it needs both wings. So that metaphor applies here; if we want to learn to plant a seed that doesn’t wear out, we’re going to need both metaphorical wings of the bird.

We can explore the first by looking at another concept they call the three spheres. What it means is that during any interaction, all the components of that interaction are empty of inherent existence. For example, if I give my friend some money, is that money empty? Of course, the value of money changes all the time; it has no intrinsic value. What about me? Am I empty? Of course, I think I’m a good person but there are some that don’t like me. Who’s right?

What about the act of giving itself? It’s a good thing, right? Or has it ever occurred that someone gave someone else something that didn’t work out so great? The US government, for example, gave American Indians on reservations blankets that gave them smallpox. Or you can look at how actions do or don’t always work as intended. Does writing a check pay your rent? Of course it can, but does it necessarily have the power to do so? Or might it get lost, stolen, or bounce?

All three aspects of any act of giving are empty. So what? Well, what if you thought about that every time you gave something away? What kind of seeds would that plant?

I would argue it plants two seeds, so you must get two results: one, money will come back to you (eventually) and two, you’ll think about the emptiness of money again. Then what would happen?

Well, if money is empty, where does it come from? Seeds. What kind of seeds? Giving it away. So if money comes to you, and you think about emptiness, what will you do? Give (at least some of) it away, of course. Thus creating an upward cycle of giving that will never wear out. You give, so you get, causing you to think of where it comes from, causing you to give again, so those seeds never wear out. (And in fact just continue to increase and increase.)

That’s one way of looking at what pure seeds are; in part two (the other wing of the bird) we will look at the other half of the equation.

Overcoming Obstacles

If you’ve been reading my blog for awhile, then you know one of my favorite things to do is pick on business magazines. They’re such wonderful sources of misinformation and deluded, illogical points of view. One of my teachers loved to make fun of the Wall Street Journal, who one week describes someone who benefitted from investing aggressively and then the next week tells us about someone who made a fortune being cautious. The truth is, and they’ll admit it if they’re honest, they have no idea why things work.

This one I found from my other favorite source of misinformation: the inflight magazine. The June issue offers a “business lesson” from former long-distance runner Joe De Sena’s book Spartan Up! A Take-No-Prisoners Guide to Overcoming Obstacles and Achieving Peak Performance in Life:

How do you overcome obstacles? “Whether you’re running 100 miles or running a business—and I would argue that running a business is a lot harder than running 100 miles—it’s all about being in the right frame of mind. Often, it’s not a matter of if things are going to get ugly; it’s a matter of when. The way I get through those pain points is by treating every situation as a learning opportunity and reminding myself that it could always be worse. If you keep things in perspective and leave your ego out of it, then it just becomes a matter of putting one foot in front of the other.

This is such a mix of interesting ideas were pure new-agey philosophy; I love it. Let’s see if we can apply a bit of logic, shall we?

Okay, in some ways I agree running a business is “a lot harder than running 100 miles.” But let’s admit it, he’s pandering to his audience. How many of us have every run 100 miles? I’m thinking a lot fewer than have run businesses. A quick google search tells me 67,000 triathletes entered competitions in 2013; roughly 20% of those people failed to finish, giving us a final number of 53,600. A cursory check for the number of business owners in the US tells me 12% of Americans own businesses less than three years old. The population clock has us at 318 million, so 12% times 318,323,818 Americans gives me a low figure of 38,198,858 business owners. Okay, maybe running a business isn’t more difficult than running 100 miles. (Then again, by year four 50% of businesses have failed, so maybe he’s not kidding.)

But I digress. Let’s look at the main point of his statement. If we just put one foot in front of the other, we can get through our “pain points” by staying in the “right frame of mind”: treat every situation as a learning opportunity and remind ourselves it could always be worse.

I like it; I have, like Bobby Knight, an avoiding-mistakes-is-a-key-to-success kind of mind. But does it pan out logically? Let’s try a syllogism:

Consider business success,
I will reach it,
Because I remind myself it could always be worse.

True or false? I don’t know; let’s run the tests. Test #1: Is it true that in business things could always be worse? Probably. Unless you’ve already lost your business and been given 150 years in prison. But even then, somehow it could possibly get worse. I love Shakespeare; Edgar in King Lear says “And worse I may be yet. The worst is not/So long as we can say “This is the worst” (4.1). Okay, let’s say it passes test #1.

Test #2: if I remind myself that things can always get worse, then I must reach business success. Again, tell it to Bernard Madoff. (And for the sake of completion, we should always run test #3: if I do not reach business success, it’s because I did not remind myself that it could always be worse.) As you’ve probably noticed, most of these kinds of syllogisms will fail tests #2 and #3. (You can start to see a pattern…)

Okay, let’s try another one:

Consider business success,
I will reach it,
Because I treat every situation as a learning opportunity.

Again, I like it. But to be logical, it has to pass the tests. Test #1: is there a connection between business success and seeing every situation as a learning opportunity? I think this is true. If you try to learn something, then no situation is a total loss. I love Thomas Edison’s famous quote “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” From that perspective, it’s difficult to truly fail, because each failure is a new data point. So let’s try test #2: if I treat every situation as a learning opportunity, I must reach business success. I like it; I want to say yes, but again, I hope Bernard Madoff learned his lesson, but it’s difficult to see how that lesson is going to produce business success for him. Hopefully he is still seeing every new situation in prison as a learning opportunity.

Anyway, I hope you can see how putting these kinds of statements into a logical syllogism reveals how ludicrous they are. The only way to logically be successful is to create the real cause for that success. But don’t believe me, run the tests.

Be a Scientist

So I was issued a challenge of sorts on Facebook:

So, don’t facts like these fly in the face of karma & Diamond Cutter principles? I anxiously await your apologetics.

This was in reference to an article online about how poor people are more ethical than rich people. The challenge is, if the idea of planting mental seeds to reach your goals is true, wouldn’t that necessitate that studies would find it worked the other way around? If the laws of seeds are true, then what goes around comes around, and rich unethical people should have problems and the meek should inherit the earth.

That’s true, but there are several problems. The first, which I wrote about on my logic blog, is that there are a lot of generalizations and stereotypes at play in this article. But that’s a bit besides the point; the point is here that the easiest answer has to do with the way seeds work.

In traditional Tibetan Buddhism the answer to the question, “When will a seed ripen?” is this life, next life, or lifetimes after that (phyi ma). This is an unsatisfactory answer to the western mind, so let’s use an analogy. I love fresh grapefruit juice. So when I squeeze my last grapefruit, I take a seed out of the pulp, and I go in my backyard, and I plant it, and I get grapefruit. Right?

Sure, but it might take twelves years or more. So mental seeds are the same, except they can take even longer. As in, lifetimes from now longer. So… one answer to “why do the wicked prosper?” is that wicked people weren’t always wicked; no one has never not done anything nice. So, if for example, Mr. Mean Rich Guy did something nice for someone in his past life and that seed ripens now, he’s rich. He might cheat on his taxes, not care about other people, and focus on himself, but still be rich. At least until the seed he planted in his past life to be rich wears out. Which actually happens quite often.

What about the other side, the poor people who don’t cheat as much, care more about other people, and who don’t focus on themselves? We could give the same answer (the time gap); no seed in the past to produce wealth. They might be more generous now, but if they weren’t in the past, it could be lifetimes before the seeds of being generous catch up to them. But we can go deeper with this question.

I’ve worked with people who have told me that planting seeds doesn’t work; they tried giving money, or visiting the old lady, and nothing happened. So what’s going on?

There’s a lot of stories I could tell, but my favorite is about exaggerating. I had a friend who was frequently exaggerating. Not a big deal, but it was causing us problems (basically a Peter and the wolf scenario). So I decided to plant a seed to fix it. I tried to stop exaggerating myself; I kept it in my six-times book and checked. Anytime I caught myself exaggerating, I immediately did the four powers. I trained my mind to the point that I couldn’t exaggerate: I was down to see my brother for Christmas, and his kids (my nephews) asked me to tell them a story. They wanted a story of how my brother had done something “interesting” when he was a kid. And, as a story-teller, sometimes you bend the facts a bit to make the story more interesting. Instead, I started the “story” off this way: “Okay kids, here are the facts.” I said that. To my ten-year old nephews, because I don’t want to exaggerate.

But nothing changed. My friend was still telling fish stories himself. So, seeds don’t work. That’s one conclusion. The other might be, as I reasoned, that exaggerating wasn’t the seed that was causing me to see my friend exaggerate. I thought about it; what else could it be?

I had worked with some friends trying to figure it out, and one of my friends said, “What does it make you feel like when you see him exaggerate?” I thought about it, and, to me, it felt like pride. So, I decided to check pride in my book. Within a week, my friend stopped exaggerating, and was asking me what was true, in public. I have recordings; you can listen to them.

So the point is, the workings of seeds are deeply hidden phenomena (shin tu lkog gyur). So it’s difficult to know what seeds we need to plant to get the result we want. So sometimes we have to be like a scientist; run an experiment.

This also assumes, of course, that you’re using the four steps and know how to do the four powers practice. If so, it’s been my experience that you can create a situation that you’re after (within reason, bigger changes require bigger seeds and more time) using a mental seed planting practice.

Karmic Management

So this blog will be my reflections on planting mental seeds; how it works, my experiences with it, thoughts, and reflections. Maybe a tip or two.

Also, since I wrote a logic book, there might be some logic in here. Mostly I’ll post logic-oriented posts to my logic blog, and try to post things here that are problem-solving oriented, particularly business problems, but I’m sure it will include other problems as well.

So subscribe if you like, post comments if you’re able, ask questions if you want answers (well, an answer anyway). But let me know what you’re like to see here or what you think might benefit others.


Eric Brinkman